Setting the Record Straight:
India Resource Center Response to Wall Street Journal Article
June 13, 2005 (London): The formidable campaign against Coca-Cola is much, much more than the work of a "pony-tailed, 39-year-old college dropout."
We welcome the feature article "How a Global Web of Activists Gives Coke Problems in India" by Steve Stecklow on the front page of the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, June 7, 2005.
The placement of the campaign profile in such a "business" oriented newspaper allows us to reach an audience that we normally do not. And the overwhelmingly positive responses that we have received, makes us believe that the people's movement against Coca Cola in India, is getting the attention that it deserves.
Significantly, the Wall Street Journal story validates some of the concerns that have been raised by the campaign. "Coke officials acknowledge, for example, that they violated their own global safety standards by failing to conduct any toxicity tests on a dump site used by its biggest plant in India until after a Wall Street Journal reporter visited it in March."
The India Resource Center worked with Mr. Steve Stecklow, the Wall Street Journal reporter, to get the real story - which is the grassroots struggle in India. Mr. Stecklow visited the communities of Plachimada and Mehdiganj in India. Needless to say, the India Resource Center did not have control over the direction of the story, nor do we agree entirely with the contents.
Massive People's Protest Invisible in Report
We find problematic the manner in which the article "personalizes" the campaign to Mr. Srivastava and reduces it literally to a "one-man show".
The formidable campaign to hold Coca-Cola accountable is about the community-led campaigns all across India. It is about the Coca-Cola Virudh Sangharsh Samiti (Anti-Coca-Cola Struggle Committee) in Plachimada, Kerala, which has dedicated over three years of hard work to ensure that the Coca-Cola bottling plant never re-opens in Plachimada. The campaign is about the Plachimada Solidarity Committee, a network of social movements across the southern state of Kerala that has continued to apply pressure on the Coca-Cola company. The campaign is about the vibrant Lok Samiti, a powerful grassroots organization in the village of Mehdiganj, near Varanasi, that is committed to ensuring that the Coca-Cola company shuts down because of the severe hardships it creates for the community. The campaign against Coca-Cola is about the tens of thousands of women in India, the Adivasis (Indigenous Peoples), the Dalits (former untouchable) and the farmers who have taken it upon themselves to hold the company accountable.
The international campaign is also about the thousands of students and community members across the world that have embraced the demands of the communities in India, and are succeeding in putting a dent in Coca-Cola's profits around the world.
The dedicated work of the people in India and internationally is the foundation upon which the international campaign is built. Without this moving spirit behind the movement, the work of Mr. Srivastava would amount to nil.
Assessment of Long-Term Impact Very Real
The India Resource Center takes exception to being accused of making 'outlandish and misleading' claims when comparing the "possible long-term health effects of some of Coke's environmental practices in India to the devastating 1984 gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal." We stand behind our comparison.
If left unheeded, the pollution being caused by the Coca-Cola company (which the article does validate) will result in further contamination of the groundwater and the soil. In addition, Coca-Cola has distributed its toxic waste to farmers around some of its bottling plants. In fact, a senior official of Coca-Cola referred to this as a "mistake" during a recent interaction at the University of Michigan.
The crisis being created by the Coca-Cola company will affect community residents for years to come. In the case of Bhopal, the disaster of December 3, 1984 at the Union Carbide factory (now owned by Dow Chemical which sits of the board of the Coca-Cola company) killed thousands, and people continue to suffer the effects of the contamination even today. Toxic chemicals left behind by the Union Carbide company have leached into the groundwater, and these contaminants are being found in the breast milk of mothers who still live around the plant. A new generation of Bhopal is ongoing, and we have learnt our lessons.
If left unchecked, Coca-Cola's pollution around its bottling plants will lead to another Bhopal - the continued poisoning of people long after the company has shut its plant and left. The campaign has put the Coca-Cola company on notice that it is liable for the long-term impacts as a result of the pollution and exposure to the toxic waste.
Coca-Cola's crimes in India- causing severe water scarcity and pollution of the water and soil are no small matter. In a country where over 70% of the population still makes a living related to agriculture, taking away the water and poisoning the remaining water and land is a sure recipe for disaster. Thousands in India have lost their livelihoods, and in a country where over 40% of the population lives below the poverty line, the difference between life and death is a fine line.
The article also states that "the water allegations remain unproven." The fact of the matter is that hardly any studies have been conducted to show the exact depletion of water in areas where Coca-Cola operates. One of the studies, by the Central Ground Water Board, a Government of India agency, concluded that the Coca-Cola company was singularly responsible for the significant water table decline in Kala Dera in Rajasthan. The report, however, has been suppressed, and Coca-Cola launched a massive pressure campaign to cast doubt on the report, speaking volumes about Coca-Cola's influence in India.
What is important to note is the experience of communities across India. Ever since Coca-Cola started operations in the area, their wells have run dry and the hand pumps do not pump water any more. It is on the basis of these experiences that local campaigns have emerged across India, and often, they are not even aware of other existing campaigns in other parts of India until after the launch of the campaign. No amount of public relations or suppression of the facts can deny the experience of communities across India.
Campaign of Lies and Misinformation
Indeed, it is Coca-Cola's mantra of denying responsibility for creating water shortages that are often times outlandish. Coca-Cola has publicly claimed that in some of the areas that it operates in, such as in Mehdiganj in Uttar Pradesh, the water table has actually risen as a result of its activities!
We believe that Indian and international audiences are savvy enough to recognize the massive campaign of misinformation being waged by the Coca-Cola company. How can a 'hydration' company (a description in their own words) deny that it has an impact on the water table when it regularly draws up to 1 million liters of water per day in some areas?
According to Coca-Cola's own admission, many of its plants in India are located in drought prone areas. It is absolutely irresponsible for a company whose primary raw material is large amounts of water to locate water intensive industries in drought prone areas.
And to top it all, the Coca-Cola company touts its rainwater harvesting programs as minimizing the stress to already water stressed areas. But if lack of rainfall is responsible for the drought, how can a rainfall harvesting program be successful in the area if there are not enough rains in the first place?
The article also mentions that the Coca-Cola company is often uninvited to the various forums we organize on campuses and communities. Let us be clear. It is the campaign that has the catching up to do when it comes to publicly presenting our views. The Coca-Cola company has regularly sent its top brass to college and universities to spin the problems in India. In fact, the Coca-Cola company organized a 'briefing' on India and Colombia for college and university administrators in the US on May 6, 2005. Over a hundred campuses were invited to listen to Coke's campaign of misinformation on the issues. It was clearly stated that no representatives from India or Colombia could attend.
One of the outcomes from that meeting has been the formation of a commission that will define a methodology to look into the allegations being made in India. The problem? The commission includes university administrators and representatives of the Coca-Cola company, and not a single person from India or Colombia is invited. Such a commission and its findings enjoys no legitimacy whatsoever in India. It is yet another public relations move by the Coca-Cola company to 'manage the growing crisis' in India.
The article is absolutely correct in its assessment that the campaign has taken a toll on the Coca-Cola company and cost it millions of dollars and an image problem.
The Coca-Cola company is best advised to deal with the issues in India by meeting the demands of the communities. Anything else is not acceptable, and the campaign, involving tens of thousands of people, will ensure that the economic and branding toll is multiplied.
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